Virginia Commonwealth University and the Commonwealth’s Attorney are partnering to divert 10 low-level offenders from jail to a VCU classroom.
The class is called "English 366: Writing and Social Change" and is taught by Dr. David Coogan.
The journey to this class was a long one, started by Coogan himself.
In the summer of 2006, Coogan began volunteering on the weekend at the old Richmond City Jail. He worked with a dozen inmates, helping them write and truly think about their stories and how they got to the place they were in.
Coogan helped numerous former inmates, including a man named Kelvin Belton. Belton says he lived a life of crime in Richmond.
“I got so many charges, it’s hard to remember,” Belton said. “I don’t like a lot of the things I did.”
Belton said over the years, he was convicted of 17 felonies; one of those felonies landed him in jail again in 2006.
“I was down on the tier, and some guys got me out there, and they came up to me to tell me I may like the writing class,” Belton said.
Belton began taking the class at the jail, writing about his childhood and experiences.
“Together, we formed this method of writing about your life as a way of trying to improve your life,” Coogan said.
The class continued, and eventually Coogan and ten of the inmates wrote a book, “Writing Your Way Out.”
This all led to an eventual proposal to the Commonwealth Attorney’s office for a course of a similar nature, which they agreed to.
The Commonwealth Attorney chose 10 low-level offenders and gave them plea agreements. They are required to take the new VCU English class and are given strict compliance rules to succeed.
In the class, diverted participants come together to read and write about literature, share the stories of their lives, support one another, and contend with the diversity of experiences tied to race, class, generation, gender, sexual orientation, addiction and the criminal justice system.
Whitney Ligon, 31, was one of the low-level offenders encouraged to take the course.
“A few months ago, I got in trouble,” Ligon said. “I got one felony and two misdemeanors. I have a public defender, and she told me that the Commonwealth’s Attorney came to her and said, 'all I had to do was take a writing class, and my charges would be dropped.'”
Ligon, who has struggled with drug addiction, agreed. She attends the class twice a week with eight other low-level offenders and ten VCU students.
There was a total of ten low-level offenders chosen, but one of them wasn’t following the guidelines and was told not to return. When that happens, the offender goes back to the judge, who decides what happens next.
The people in this program have to exemplify their hope to truly change.
Writing Your Way Out will accept only low-level offenders who can demonstrate their motivation to break the cycle of crime in their lives and who have a facility with writing and reading. No person shall be eligible for the program if he or she has previously been convicted of a sex offense, any violent felony involving a crime against a person, or any form of burglary.
This diversion program hopes to reduce recidivism and educate people on how to create better lives.
“I want a prison-to-school pipeline," said Coogan.
Coogan believes too many people are incarcerated who shouldn’t be. He hopes to help those individuals and provide them the introspection and hope they need.
This is the first time the course has been offered at VCU.
According to the college, “Writing Your Way Out will require no new funds or resources, and will in fact save the Virginia taxpayers’ money by reducing court costs and eliminating the cost of incarceration.”
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